Scrabble champ seeks national Spelling Bee win

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — Cooper Komatsu is not just a top-notch speller, he is a champion Scrabble contestant. Komatsu is looking to follow his National School Scrabble Championship in April with a win at this week’s Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Cooper, a 13-year-old from Los Angeles, is competing in his second Bee following an 11th-place finish at the 2015 Spelling Bee.

Komatsu is hoping to return to the finals on Thursday. In order for that to happen, he must survive the preliminary round on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Only 50 out of the 285 spellers on hand make it to Thursday’s finals.

“It is unreal (being in the finals),” Cooper said. “I have been watching the Bee for years and there are a lot of cameras flashing and you are in front of a huge audience. Spelling is kind of awesome up there.  I am just trying to focus as much as I can on that word.”

For parents Deborah and Robert Komatsu, they follow the facial expression of their son, along with the other spellers.

“One of the things I love watching about the Spelling Bee is watching the kids’ faces when they hear the word and you can tell if they’re locked in,” Cooper’s mother Deborah Komatsu said. “Whenever I see Cooper get that word, I am looking for that locked-in face.”

Cooper, along with teammate Jem Burch, split a $10,000 prize for winning last month’s Scrabble Championship after the duo withstood eight rounds of play.

While Scrabble allows for a mistake, there is no room for mistakes at the Bee. One misspelling knocks a speller out of the competition.

“There is some crossover (between Scrabble and the Bee) and there are some words in Scrabble I can take from one to the other, a lot of the words are different,” Komatsu said.  “In spelling, one mistake and you’re out. In Scrabble, you can make a mistake as long you play other good words.”

To prepare for this year’s Spelling Bee, Komatsu said he studies the roots of words.

“That really helps me with the spelling and the definition,” Komatsu said.

Returning to the Spelling Bee gives the Komatsu family an opportunity to make new friends. Cooper’s father Robert Komatsu said he met spellers at last year’s picnic before the Spelling Bee.

“They build friendships,” Robert Komatsu said.

While spellers come from all 50 states, and several other nations, there is a mutual understanding between spellers of what it takes to reach the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.

“Cooper mentioned to me the other day while he was studying for the Spelling Bee at the school and someone asked him why is he studying for something you don’t have to study for,” Deborah Komatsu said. “Cooper said, ‘You don’t understand.’ Here, it is a whole group of people who understand that desire to really excel at something.”

Although Cooper spends plenty of time studying, he finds time to watch basketball and play with Lego Robots. 

Justin Boggs is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @jjboggs or on Facebook.

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